Art is transformative. Just ask the Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams. His work has the power to captivate us and shift our perspective, offering the opportunity to dream anew.
A participant of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency in 2019 and the recipient of the prestigious Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship in 2018, Adams is best known as a painter, printmaker, and multimedia artist. Perhaps less well documented is his robust community-based practice beyond the studio.
Adams rose to prominence in the late 2010s with his wildly popular “Floater” series, which depicts Black men, women, and children lounging in pools enjoying leisurely moments of joy surrounded by friends and loved ones. Imagining a world where rest and relaxation are prioritized for Black people is not radical in and of itself—it’s only radical in a society that has historically, consistently, and intentionally perpetuated violent images and false narratives surrounding Black life and culture. In his critically acclaimed work, Adams illustrates his firsthand experiences of love, family ties, and the transfer of knowledge through oral traditions.
All the while, Adams has also engaged in social practice work, supporting programs like Zora’s Den, a workshop for Black women writers founded by his sister, Victoria Adams-Kennedy, and founding the Black Baltimore Digital Database, a new archive cataloguing the cultural production of Black Baltimoreans. Earlier this year, the Mellon Foundation awarded Adams $1.25 million for the project.
He is also planning another program, the Last Resort Artist Retreat, that prioritizes rest for Black creatives. The invitation-only residency is intended to give artists the opportunity to share space without the obligation of making work. The residency will include a stipend, a four-week stay, and programming including talks with guest curators and arts educators.
I sat down with Adams to learn more the importance of depicting Black people in joyful moments of tranquility, the magic of connecting through conversation, and the value of knowledge handed down through oral traditions.
What does community building mean to you?
Community is essential to my existence. I don’t feel that you can do anything without a community, and even if you could, I don’t see myself wanting to do anything without some community engagement. Every time I think about myself as an artist, I think of community because I like the idea that everyone’s eating. It’s really about being a facilitator. The person who connects people is such a significant part of any community. Especially for Black people, I think we have these two things we’re grappling with: the idea of individuality and the idea of being part of a group.
Contemporary culture is about me. It’s about I, it’s about my perspective. We’re still trying to figure out the complicated space where you want to speak from your individual perspective, but you also want to be connected to the community. I think that even when Black people think on an individual basis, they hear this echo—the voice of their community that comes from some ancestral space and makes them more accountable. I think we have a lot more voices in our head than other people when it comes to our plight. When you talk to a lot of successful Black people, they say, “my grandmother told me this,” or “my father told me that when I make a lot of money, donate it, give it back.” I think that’s a part of the lineage of Black culture.
How does your work challenge ideas surrounding Black life in America?
I didn’t start off thinking about challenging any particular one. I was thinking more about how we look at ourselves beyond the restraints of society, the echoes of victimization, and present ideas of how I want us to be seen now. I think most Black people want to have the liberty to craft their persona in a way that non-Black people have been able to do. Black people in general have intentionally been presented in a way that has been very exploitative. In our desire not to forget about the past, we feel obligated to revisit past trauma a lot. I think it’s really important for us to make space for imagination, depicting ourselves in a way that’s more empowering for the new generation.
This series of interviews chronicles artists across generations working in social practice. How does your work lend itself to social practice art?
Although my work is market-accepted and being sold in galleries, I think about it being medicinal or holistic. The social practice within that is understanding your audience and giving them a level of empowerment that they can share with others to have our stories told so people begin to understand the richness and complexity of Black culture. That’s what I think of as social practice.
And with that, I go beyond by creating spaces like the Last Resort Artist Retreat or the Black Baltimore Digital Database. That’s part of my bigger umbrella in Baltimore. It’s an extension of my studio practice, where the things I cover in my work expand into experiences for other people to share. My studio practice is really about me, but the other organizations I’m creating and supporting are [about] my desire for people to be able to have a space of their own for reflection, which we don’t always get because we’re always grinding, trying to stay afloat, and trying to be successful. We need a break and we need a space to engage with each other and not have an agenda. The agenda is just gathering.
I want to create a space where Black people don’t have to work. Most of my inspiration as an artist comes from being around other Black people and sharing ideas. Those ideas become the foundation for my art practice. I think community and social practice is a really important part of just being present.
It’s interesting because on one side, you have an individual studio practice that’s about you and your work, and on the other side, you have programming outside of the studio that is more about who you are as a person and what’s important to you. How do you engage in social interaction and community engagement and collaborative educational programming beyond the studio?
The most important thing for me is having information about Black culture and the Black experience. The information you hear around the home at the table should be considered just as much as the things you encounter in your classes. The things on the streets are so much more tangible and relevant to me because those are things that the audiences I’m focusing on are connected to. And I feel like if you surround yourself with people you consider interesting, you always win. Living in New York has expanded my idea of how to develop community. I think being in this city has highlighted what cultural currency is. It’s not always about finance. It’s about understanding the value of social interaction and input from people in your community.
I want to talk about your residency program, The Last Resort, and the idea of rest as a radical act. Why did you start it and what do you want to achieve?
We’re still figuring that out. Because we haven’t officially opened, I’ve been inviting artists, creatives, and other people who are interested in staying on the property for a couple days and experiencing the space to give us feedback on how it should function and share any ideas they have. We’re considering what we will offer to the community of non-creative people and what we will offer to individuals who we invite to come because the residency is by invitation only. I have no real motive other than having a place of reset for cultural workers to come and share a space. I want there to also be the opportunity for artists to work with the community in Baltimore outside of the residency because we want to build relationships with other cultural centers there.
We’re at a place where I’m meeting with a lot of doctors, lawyers, and spiritual advisors and gathering data. We’re thinking about the educational benefits and the overall health benefits of engaging with the residents on many different levels including yoga and meditation. But until we actually have a playbook, we’re not gonna open.
Last year, you debuted a site-specific mural at the Milwaukee Art Museum that that was inspired by Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, a traveler’s guide for Black Americans during the Jim Crow era. You brought together images of and references to historic local sites of Black leisure, from a coffee shop to the Historical Society. Can you speak about that work and the ways in which sites help you to dive deeper into community engagement?
When I’m commissioned to do something and I go to cities that I’m not from, I always look for the Black neighborhood in the city. A lot of times as an artist becomes more successful, you’re not necessarily taken to those parts. Nobody takes you to the hood and some artists don’t want to go. I’m the opposite. I want to go to the most famous Black restaurant in the hood. I want to go where the people who don’t necessarily go to the museum are because my work is inspired by those types of things.
Before I started creating the piece, I knew what I wanted to make. But as a person who’s not from Milwaukee, I knew I had to make it right because it was gonna be about the Black people in Milwaukee and I wanted to make sure that they liked it. I make work that I think Black people want to see if they walk into a museum.
I went to Milwaukee to learn, so I did two things: I had the curator take me to some of the more iconic places in Milwaukee that Black people frequent and I looked at photos from two old Milwaukee newspapers from the 1960s to the ‘80s that had been collected by a local photo archivist. When the guy came in, he had suitcases full of old photos. I didn’t look at them like an archivist or historian. I looked at them as a Black person with a relatively close experience growing up in Baltimore. I was fortunate enough to meet some of the people who are in the photographs who are now seniors. One person heard that they were featured in the mural and came back to Milwaukee to look at it and be photographed in front of the piece.
You recently received a $1.25 million grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to develop an archive that aims to document the activities of Black artists and creatives in Baltimore. Can you speak more about that project?
I’ve started to go back to Baltimore over the past five years to learn about the development of the creative community. I started to attend meetings with archivists. A lot of them are Black, working in institutions like John Hopkins and the University of Baltimore, going into Black communities and helping them to digitize their archive material, which is deteriorating. They’ve gone into churches and scanned baptismal records. I thought it would be interesting to create a space that’s counter to an institution where Black people, not just creative Black people, can come and look at the information and use the space to do workshops and engage. It will also be a place to learn about the importance of archiving history.
We want it to look like a house, very intimate, where people can come, sit on the couch, talk to people over coffee or tea, and find information pertaining to different subjects of Black life. It’s going to be a place of social engagement, of social practice. The whole reason is to let Black people know we’ve been here. We’ve been doing this. This is not new for us. This picnic, this gathering, this art club that you think you just found or founded with your friends, it happened already. This impromptu jazz thing you were doing in the basement in 2020, there was somebody who did it in 1967 in this part of Baltimore. It’s a way to preserve the legacy of what you’re doing right now as it relates to something else that came before. So the database is really trying to help reshape the future.
I met a Black woman who said she’s part of an archivist group and they don’t want to give their stuff to anybody, but they want to give it to me. She was like, “All these institutions want it.” But they don’t want to give it to the institutions because Black people are not gonna go see it or look at it [there].
The database is the beginning of something that exists counter to the institutional space—a place where oral narrative mixes with data.
I think more people are realizing the importance of the archive and historical record-keeping. On a panel with the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor a year ago, he said to me, “One of the things I see today is that the oral tradition of African culture has actually worked against the African in modern-day society because you have an incredibly rich history and legacy, but you don’t have a place where it’s been stored. Once elders pass, if they don’t pass down information, that information is gone.”
As a Black person, I grapple with the idea of proof. We are instrumental in so many things—so many things that are used as part of our daily lives that many people don’t know were made or invented by Black people. I think it’s funny when people think about the idea of inferiority. What is more inferior than someone who doesn’t understand the history of the thing that they’re using? It’s important for us to become aware of how valuable information is.